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School nutrition: A way to make North Carolina students thrive

Last December 900,000 students in the state of North Carolina received a free or reduced school lunch meal, said Katherine Miller, senior director of food policy advocacy at the James Beard Foundation and moderator for a panel on childhood and school nutrition at the Thrive NC Summit. Hosted by Blue Cross NC, the summit held last Thursday gathered more than 150 food system stakeholders from across the state.

“If there was anything I could potentially do to make a difference for our students, it would probably be to go out and advocate that school meals are just as important as the pencils our students bring to school,” said panelist Paula DeLucca, senior director of nutrition for Wake County Public Schools.

Fellow panelist Steven Greene, executive chef at the Umstead Hotel and Spa, agreed, saying that poor nutrition is related to both behavioral issues and a student’s ability to learn.

However, delivering a nutritious school meal to students and also conforming to budget can be a challenge, said DeLucca. “We have a meal price for our elementary students of $2.45. A single carton of milk costs more that 25 cents. I need two ounces of protein. I need whole grains. I need to provide fruits and vegetables,” she said, explaining that there were also vegetable subgroup requirements and staffing needs to ensure compliance with meal regulations.

Due to such regulations, DeLucca says the focus falls off the “center of the plate.” 

“We are putting 80 percent of our resources into our regulatory and compliance piece,” DeLucca said, noting the area where she sees the most room for change when it comes to school meals.

“School lunch is an opportunity for us to live out our highest ideals and values,” said Stephanie Terry, panelist and owner of Sweeties Southern & Vegan Catering. “This is our problem. This is our children,” she said, echoing a theme of the summit that food issues affect all communities.

It is also an issue that affects students every day, especially during the summer months beyond the traditional school year.

“During the school year we serve about 70 percent of those children on free/reduced lunch,” said panelist Cynthia Ervin, summer nutrition manager at the North Carolina Department of Instruction. “During the summer this drops to about 12 percent.”

Ervin said that the drop in summer meal access often involves transportation challenges, especially in rural areas. “How can I get the children to the meals, or the meals to the children?” Ervin asked.

“You have to be in a congregative setting. That’s a barrier,” Ervin said. “Pretty much children in rural areas don’t go to the Boys & Girls Club or the YMCA. They are at home.”

Such barriers are why Ervin says summer nutrition programs require community collaboration. “It’s the village,” she said.

In North Carolina, there are examples of communities addressing their nutrition challenges. Rev. Richard Joyner, founder of Conetoe Family Life Center, realized members of his congregation were dying prematurely due to poor nutrition. Through a focus on growing healthy and nutritious foods, the community’s health profile experienced a turnaround.

“We’ve seen our life span go longer. We’re managing chronic disease outside of the emergency room,” Joyner said. “Our youth is doing it from their garden, and they feel empowered that they are bringing something from the table that literally helps their family out.”

Rev. Joyner credited the success of the effort to being one that started directly on the ground.

“It started from a community standpoint and not an institutional standpoint, and that’s the driving power behind it,” Joyner said.

Other organizations, including health service providers, are taking notice of place-based community efforts. Dr. Shirley Huang, a pediatric weight management specialist at WakeMed Physician Practices, said doctors’ offices are also making an effort to be a part of the community.

“We do believe that change starts with the child and family,” Huang said. While WakeMed offers several solutions for nutrition and weight management for children, from meal replacements to bariatric surgery, Huang said it is the small behavior changes that matter the most.

“When I see children and families make small changes that in the long run makes a big impact on their health, it’s so satisfying,” Huang said.

“We try to help them be healthier, one step at a time.”

Editor’s Note: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina supports the work of EdNC.

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.